My Mother’s Sense of Humor

My own mother passed away a decade ago, but my memories of her are still strong, and I used some of these memories for the Humorous Speech Contest which I entered last Fall.   This entry won the second-place in the area-level competition, and was my first experience at entering a speech contest.    The theme was how my mother and father came from different cultural backgrounds, and how this was reflected in their quite different senses of humor.  

The Germans and the Irish

What do you get what when you cross a German with an Irishman?   You get someone who goes to the tavern ON TIME. You know another thing you get when you cross a German with an Irishman?  You get me, and my brothers and sister, because my mother is German and my Dad is Irish.

The Lucy Show on television drew a lot of its humor from the different cultures and temperaments between Lucy and Ricky.  In our family, it was the difference between my father and my mother which provided the comedy in our household.

The key elements in my father’s sense of humor were a sense of imagination and the use of satire.  As an example of his imagination, when we were kids, he told us a whole series of stories about his childhood friend Sam Rainwater, who was a Native American.  He described the adventures of many of his ancestors.  We were enthralled by the stories, which my dad would tell us after having a wee bit of firewater, because he would put us in them and give us fake names like “Chief Long Face” for my serious older brother or “Running Mouth for me—for reasons which I probably don’t need to explain.

Imagine my excitement when I finally got to meet the real Sam Rainwater when we went down to Arkansas for my Dad’s high-school reunion.  I asked him about Native American heritage.  He sounded confused:  “We’re not Native American, we’re German.”   You see the Regenwasser family changed their name to Rainwater during World War I when we were at war with Germany.  All my mother could do was look upwards and say, “Ach, du lieber!”

As an example of his sense of satire, later on when I was in college, I came back to my parents’ house in August after summer session was out, and my brother had just left the Navy and was living with them until he could find an apartment in the city of Chicago.

As he was going upstairs after dinner, my Mother leaned over and said, “your brother will be leaving us in September,” with a triumphant smile.  My Dad leaned over and said in imitation of her , “he doesn’t know yet, but…”  We all laughed at this, but then my Mother said in all seriousness “John, I would never kick out any of our children.”  I had to turn to her and say,“Mom, how could you be married to him for so long and STILL TAKE HIM SO SERIOUSLY.”

Now don’t get me wrong, my Mother did have a sense of humor, but she made fun or herself more than others, and it was in general more gentle and childlike.  For example, on our way back from Arkansas on the trip I just mentioned, we passed through Missouri to see our cousins on my Dad’s side who lived in St. Louis.  My Dad’s brother was an actor on a showboat called the Goldenrod, and as we were approaching the Mississippi, my mother said “oh, look, it’s the Goldenrod!”  We all were looking for it but couldn’t find it.  She turned around and said, “MADE YOU LOOK!” and then laughed as she saw our looks of astonishment.

Which side of the family do my brothers and sister take after?   My older brother John is probably the most serious of us all, very much like my mother, and my sister and I are probably somewhere in between.   We appreciate my Dad’s sense of humor but we’re more like our mother in that we make more fun ourselves than others.  In other words, in comedy, humility is often more powerful than humiliation.

But the one who REALLY takes the most after my Dad is my younger brother Ralph.  When my mother was in the hospital with a stroke, he was with her when she passed away.  He called my Dad and the rest of us to come to the hospital.  When my Dad saw her lying there, my Dad sighed, squeeze her hand, and then said, “well, I guess I had better call the funeral home.”  I could see he was having a hard time, because is mind was trying to focus on the conversation, but the rest of him was still processing what had just happened.  The funeral director must have asked what she died from, because he said, “oh, it was … I can’t think straight.  Ralph, what was her medical problem again?”  “What’s her medical problem?  Dad, she’s dead!”   My Dad looked at him and said, “you know what I meant, you smart aleck–oh, I’m sorry I didn’t mean you, I was talking to my son.”  All I could do was look upward and say “ach, du lieber.”

At the funeral, I that I could tell the story I just told you to my Irish relatives, but I dared not let the German relatives overhear it.  When my Dad invited his side of the family to an Irish pub after the funeral dinner, I was happy they honored him by coming to the tavern, because I was able to tell them the story.  But what I really touched by the fact that they honored the spirit of my mother as well, because they all arrived at the tavern ON TIME.


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